Image: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
New York Mets
by Jared Greenspan
2021 Record: 77-85 (.475 win%, 3rd in NL East)
2021 Payroll: $201,189,189 (3rd)
Projected 2022 Lineup:
1. CF Brandon Nimmo, .259 AVG/.377 OBP/.431 SLG, 3.9 fWAR
2. RF Starling Marte: .269 AVG/.333 OBP/.429 SLG, 2.8 fWAR
3. SS Francisco Lindor: .253 AVG/.330 OBP/.467 SLG, 4.6 fWAR
4. 1B Pete Alonso: .261 AVG/.352 OBP/.554 SLG, 4.2 fWAR
5. 3B Eduardo Escobar: .241 AVG/.302 OBP/.432 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
6. 2B Jeff McNeil: .280 AVG/.346 OBP/.434 SLG, 2.5 fWAR
7. DH Robinson Cano: .258 AVG/.311 OBP/.406 SLG, 0.4 fWAR
8. LF Mark Canha: .233 AVG/.348 OBP/.408 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
9. C James McCann: .230 AVG/.292 OBP/.372 SLG, 1.0 fWAR
Projected 2022 Rotation:
Jacob deGrom, 165.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 fWAR
Max Schezer, 189.0 IP, 3.44 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 4.2 fWAR
Chris Bassitt, 183.0 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.2 fWAR
Taijuan Walker, 142.0 IP, 4.66 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 0.9 fWAR
Carlos Carrasco, 141.0 IP, 4.13 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR
Projected 2022 Top 3 Relievers:
Edwin Diaz, 67.0 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 0.9 fWAR
Trevor May, 66.0 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR
Seth Lugo, 70.0 IP, 3.84 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR
Everyone knows that Steve Cohen has boundless pockets and, with the Mets coming off an all-too-familiar disappointing 2021 campaign, word on the street was that Cohen was eager to spend. And boy did Cohen spend – so much so that, in the freshly-minted CBA, the owners secured a fourth level to the luxury tax, referred to as the “Cohen tax” within the industry, an unceremonious ode to New York’s love-him or hate-him owner.
In a frantic 72-hour span in late November, Cohen committed a whopping $254.5 million to four players: infielder Eduardo Escobar ($20 million), outfielder Mark Canha ($26.5 million), outfielder Starling Marte ($78 million) and ace pitcher Max Scherzer ($130 million).
Not only does the quartet bolster New York’s roster, but each player carries with him a well-respected veteran presence. That, if anything, emerged as a common thread throughout the Mets’ offseason, after a year marred by an alleged clubhouse altercation, a blind sense of optimism that prevailed in spite of an epic collapse and an infamous “thumbs-down” scandal.
Nowhere is that theme more apparent than through the new man at the helm, manager Buck Showalter. Showalter brings with him over 20-years of MLB managerial experience, including five trips to the postseason, with three different franchises. He knows how to handle New York and its requisite media circus, too, having spent four seasons leading the Yankees.
Showalter’s hiring marked a stark deviation from the franchise’s past three managerial hires: Mickey Callaway, Carlos Beltran and Luis Rojas were all hired as first-time MLB managers, boasting no prior experience.
As with most other franchises, the Mets’ offseason can be divided into two parts, situated around the lockout. Once the lockout came to a merciful close, New York wasted little time making another splash, rounding out its rotation with a trade for Oakland stalwart Chris Bassitt. Adam Ottavino and Chasen Shreve entered the fold, too, with each likely to find his way into the Opening Day bullpen.
As grandeur as the offseason was, there was a sizable amount of turnover, as well. Gone is Javier Baez, last season’s tantalizing trade deadline acquisition, who signed with Detroit after a spectacular two months in Queens. Aaron Loup, a godsend out of the bullpen, left for Anaheim alongside Noah Syndergaard, who declined the qualifying offer in a rather surprising move. Marcus Stroman, who became expendable after the Scherzer signing, left for Chicago. Michael Conforto, after a disastrous 2021 campaign, remains on the market, unsigned with Opening Day looming just a few days away. Jeurys Familia, Brad Hand, Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar – each of whom contributed in various capacities last season – have found new homes, as well.
But for all the turnover, the Mets believe that their roster is significantly better than last season’s group – and, more importantly, one that is good enough to vault New York into the postseason for the first time since 2016.
2022 Season Preview:
So much of New York’s fortunes are tied to a pair of right arms, those belonging to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. And if the pair of aces – two of the preeminent pitchers of their generation – manage to stay healthy, it’s not too difficult to imagine the Mets careening through a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes come November.
That assumption of full health, though, is a precarious one – and, already, one that is merely a mirage. Just six days before Opening Day, an MRI found that deGrom has a stress reaction on his right scapula; he will discontinue throwing for up to four weeks, meaning that, at the earliest, he will return to a major league mound in mid-May.
It’s a harrowing act of déjà vu for deGrom, baseball and the Mets at large. deGrom’s brilliant 2021 season was marred by a variety of nagging injuries; the bug ultimately caught up with him in July, when a partial ligament tear sidelined him for the season’s final three months. It’s not a coincidence that the Mets spiraled out of control with deGrom on the shelf. His importance cannot be quantified – beyond his stunning 1.08 ERA, there’s a psychological impact at play here, too. Knowing that deGrom takes the bump every fifth day grants New York the inside-track at a victory, regardless of whatever skid they may be on.
While deGrom last pitched in a regular season game on July 7, there was a fleeting sense of optimism that his injuries are a way of the past. Several of his ailments originated from swinging in the bat; with the implementation of the designated hitter in the NL, deGrom’s exploits will be solely reserved for pitching. Some, too, suspected that deGrom’s stunning velocity jump – he comfortably hit triple-digits on the radar gun last season – did more harm than good. This spring, deGrom has experimented with throwing fastballs at less-than maximum effort, which still produces fastballs in the 97-98 mph range. Perhaps this effort, along with deGrom’s general awareness of injury prevention, will maximize his time on the mound.
And yet, Friday’s news served as a jarring reminder of just how tenuous deGrom’s health is and, by association, New York’s aspirations. With deGrom soon to be 34, it’s not outlandish to wonder if the injuries are not a fluke, but here to stay.
In deGrom’s absence, a heavy burden will fall to Scherzer. But his health, too, is somewhat of a question mark. He is entering his age-37 season and, the last time he was called upon to pitch in a meaningful game, he couldn’t do so, missing a crucial Game Six start in last year’s NLCS due to a bout of arm fatigue. The wear and tear on Scherzer’s arm is nearly unparalleled; he is the definition of a bulldog, an iron horse. At some point or another, Father Time is bound to catch up. New York is betting on that wrath not occurring just yet, as the Mets handed Scherzer a record-setting three-year, $132 million contract back in November, setting up what, on paper, is one of the greatest 1-2 punches of all time.
Early returns on Scherzer have been overwhelmingly positive. After spending his offseason locked in labor negotiations as a lead negotiator for the MLBPA, Scherzer has admirably flipped the switch into playing mode, gearing his trademarked intensity back to his craft. In his first Spring Training start, Scherzer hurled four innings of one-run ball; in his second appearance, he stretched out to 89 pitches across six innings.
While deGrom and Scherzer may dictate New York’s floor – and are sure to grab the lion’s share of the tabloid headlines – it’s the rest of the rotation that may very well decide this team’s ceiling. In their first move post-lockout, the Mets traded for Oakland’s Chris Bassitt, a 34-year-old right-hander who has quietly established himself as one of baseball’s better pitchers over the past four seasons. Since 2018, Bassitt has pitched to a 3.23 ERA across 70 starts. In most rotations, Bassitt, a 2021 All-Star, is an ace; in this star-studded group, he is perhaps the best No. 3 in the game.
The Mets are banking on turn-arounds from two back-end members of their rotation, Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco. Walker inked a two-year contract late last offseason and dazzled during his first half-season in New York, earning a selection to the All-Star game due to a 2.66 ERA. But for Walker, the second half became a nightmare: He lost velocity on his fastball and bite on his off-speed pitchers and, as a result, watched his ERA balloon to a 7.13 second-half mark and failed to pick up a win, going 0-8; he also allowed a whopping 20 second-half home runs, nearly a home run every three innings. It was a stunning transformation from an ultra-dependable pitcher to a liability, a drop-off that in no small part contributed to the Mets’ second-half collapse. Walker underwent offseason knee surgery, which he is still on the mend from, and seems to be perhaps a week or so behind his staff mates. Once he makes his season debut, the Mets won’t necessarily need Walker from the C, they just need him to find a happy medium.
Carrasco’s first season in Queens unfolded like a nightmare. He suffered a torn hamstring in February, which wound up sidelining him until the tail end of July. Once he debuted, he struggled to get his feet underneath him, posting a 6.04 ERA, the worst mark of his career. He was plagued by the long ball, allowing 12 home runs in just 53.2 innings, and decimated by first-inning struggles – he surrendered 18 runs in the first inning, the same number he allowed in all other innings combined. There is reason to believe, though, that the 35-year-old is ripe for a turnaround. In the offseason, Carrasco underwent a procedure to extract loose bodies from his pitching elbow, which he has pitched with for the past several seasons. This spring, Carrasco informed reporters that the elbow feels brand new, and he feels he has more bite on his pitches as a result.
With a rotation as fragile as this one, minor league depth is all the more imperative. Luckily, the Mets have a pair of young starters waiting in the wings at Triple-A Syracuse, a luxury that many teams don’t have. Tylor Megill emerged as a godsend late last season, ascending from the depths of the farm system in rapid order. Megill impressed with his stoic demeanor and blazing fastball and, still just 26-years-old, seems poised to improve – and now, that improvement will likely have to take place at the major league level, with Megill seemingly a frontrunner to seize the fifth-starter spot with deGrom on the shelf. David Peterson, who endured a similar break out campaign in 2020, took a step backwards last season, struggling with inconsistency before being sidelined for the season’s final three months with a pair of injuries. Peterson, the organization’s first-round pick in 2016, has the prototypical frame – at 6-foot-6 – to be a serviceable left-hander.
Beyond Megill and Peterson, the Mets’ rotation depth is less of a sure thing. Jordan Yamomato, who made one stop-gap start last season before suffering a shoulder injury, is back in the fold. Joey Lucchessi, who pitched well before tearing his UCL and requiring Tommy John surgery last June, is progressing in his rehab and could return as soon as August. High-end pitching talent, though, is scarce in the upper-levels of the farm system, so any reinforcements would likely have to come via a splashy trade. All of this is to say: Should another pitcher go down with an injury before deGrom comes back, the Mets are left in a disadvantageous situation.
The Mets’ bullpen, more or less, features the same key faces. And, it’s an interesting collection of stakes, because every prominent reliever is entering a walk-year.
Somehow, the ever-enigmatic Edwin Diaz is about to begin his fourth year in the orange and blue. And while Diaz will never cease to make Mets fans nervous, he has been quite good the past two seasons, even including the number of epic collapses. 2019 may stain Diaz’s legacy – he allowed a whopping 15 home runs, posted a 5.59 ERA and blew seven saves – but, the past two seasons, he has largely been the closer that the Mets envisioned receiving when they acquired him in 2018. He struck out 89 baters in 62.2 innings last season, allowing a career-low 0.4 home runs per nine innings, while his hard-hit rate was in the 99th percentile.
Seth Lugo and his notorious curveball had an up-and-down 2021 season, one that got off to a late start due to an elbow injury. He finished with a 3.50 ERA, better than his 5.15 mark in 2020 but not quite replicating the 2.66 and 2.70 marks he posted in 2018 and 2019. Trevor May lived up to the first year of his two-year, $15 million contract, striking out 83 batters in 62.2 inning. Submarining Adam Ottavino is likely to slide into a sixth or seventh-inning style role.
The most pressing task the Mets will have to manage is replacing Aaron Loup, who pitched to a dazzling 0.95 ERA and posted a whopping 2.8 fWAR last season. Loup left for Anaheim in the offseason, leaving a void in the bullpen that New York is yet to fill. Chasen Shreve and Alex Claudio, two left-handed journeymen, are jostling for the left-handed reliever spot.
In a division with the likes of Bryce Harper, Matt Olson and Kyle Schwarber, left-handed relievers are a needed commodity. The Mets boast a number of relievers who fare well against left-handers – Diaz and May chief among them – but none can replicate Loup, who held left-handers to a .167 average and .214 slugging percentage.
The rest of the bullpen includes Drew Smith, who seems on the cusp of becoming a reliable late-inning reliever after pitching to a 2.45 ERA last season, but has been slowed this spring with a foot injury; long-man Trevor Williams, the other half of the Javy Baez trade; Sean Reid-Foley, who impressed in his rookie season after coming over in the Steven Matz trade; Yennsy Diaz, another member of the Matz trade; and Jake Reed, a submarine-hurling specialist.
Last season, the Mets offense – heralded as one of the league’s best entering the season, following gaudy 2020 numbers – fell on its face. New York finished 27th in runs scored, above only the Rangers, Marlins and lowly Pirates.
In the offseason, New York bolstered its lineup, signing three dependable veterans. Eduardo Escobar, who will start at third base, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career; splitting time between Arizona and Milwaukee, the 33-year-old mashed 28 home runs and slugged .472. Mark Canha posted a 2.5 fWAR for Oakland, earmarked by a .358 OBP. And Starling Marte brings much-needed speed to the top of the Mets’ order; last season, Marte stole 47 bases, in addition to posting a 132 OPS+.
Escobar, Canha and Marte are all defensive upgrades, too, each bringing with them versatility. While Escobar figures to see the bulk of his time at third, he can slide in at second and first when needed; Canha and Marte, who seem poised to start in left field and right field, respectively, can play any outfield position.
As much as the aforementioned trio will raise the Mets’ offensive production, so much of the unit’s success is contingent upon bounce-back seasons from a cohort of players. In 2021, only Brandon Nimmo and Pete Alonso came close to meeting expectations. Nimmo struggled to stay healthy but, when in the lineup, he proved to be invaluable, posting a 3.6 fWAR and a cool .401 on base percentage, drawing 54 walks in just 386 plate appearances. Alonso provided a blueprint for his teammates, rebounding from a disappointing 2020 season to slug .863 with 37 home runs and a 134 OPS+.
No potential turnaround will be more important than that of Francisco Lindor, the superstar shortstop who slumped through his inaugural season in Queens. Lindor was virtually an average player last season, with a 101 OPS+. As he enters Year 1 of his 10-year, $341 million contract extension that he signed on Opening Day eve last season, Lindor will need to prove that last season was an anomaly. There are indications that it was – he reversed course with a solid September and is tearing the cover off the ball this Spring – but none of that will matter if he endures a repeat year this season.
And Lindor is not alone in looking for a bounce back year. Perhaps no one’s struggles were more surprising than Jeff McNeil’s. McNeil established himself as one of the game’s best hitters from 2018-2020, posting batting averages of .329, .318 and .311, with his lowest OPS+ being a mere 130. But last season, McNeil never found a rhythm, constantly looking out of sorts at the dish – he finished the year hitting just .251 with a .679 OPS, his power all but evaporated. His 1.4 fWAR – in 426 plate appearances – fell shy of his 2020 fWAR of 1.5, which he attained in just 209 trips to the dish.
Dom Smith, who received down-ballot MVP votes after a brilliant 2020 campaign, saw a similar turn for the worse. His slugging percentage fell nearly 300 percentage points; he hit just one more home run in 493 plate appearances than he did across 177 plate appearances in 2020. Right when the former first-round pick seemed at the cusp of stardom, he regressed across the board.
J.D. Davis endured a difficult season in his own right; though he ended up slashing a respectable .285/.384/.436, he became merely a punch-and-judy hitter, a far cry from the player who slugged .527 and walloped 27 home runs in 2019. Injuries limited Davis to just 73 games, and a hand injury seemed to be a culprit for the power outage. But if Davis is to make up for his defensive limitations, the Mets need him to not only hit, but to do so for power.
It seemed to be almost an industry formality that one of McNeil, Smith or Davis would be traded during the offseason. But, for whatever reason, New York opted to hold onto all three of them, perhaps too tantalized by their recent success. And it’s not hard to envision each of them resembling their former selves – and the Mets are certainly relying on that to re-transform the offense into one of the game’s best.
Behind the plate is James McCann, who drew the ire of the fan base with a disappointing 2021. McCann managed just a .294 on base percentage and .349 slugging percentage, good for a meager 77 OPS+. Tomas Nido, the backup option at catcher, hardly fared better, posting a 61 OPS+ and struggling through a variety of injuries. For now, the Mets have no choice but to hope McCann, who still has three years left on his four-year contract, can become some semblance of the player who posted a 143 OPS+ with the White Sox in 2020 (or even the one who posted a 108 OPS+ in 2019).
Perhaps the ultimate wild card in the Mets’ lineup configuration is Robinson Cano – remember him? The last time we saw Cano in the regular season, he was actually quite good, posting an .896 OPS in 2020, his highest figure since 2013, his ultimate year with the Yankees. But Cano would soon be suspended for the 2021 season after testing positive for stanozolol, his second failed drug test of his career. And so it remains to be seen how much of that success was steroid-induced. While those around the game, and the Mets, insist that Cano can hit in his sleep, he enters 2022 as an unknown. New York could have severed ties with the 39-year-old in the offseason, eating the remaining $40 million on his contract, but the front office opted to see if there is anything left in the tank. With the DH now implemented in the NL, Cano seems poised to receive the lion’s share of playing time at the DH, at least in the early going.
Luis Guillorme is a prototypical bench player: a pesky hitter deft at working pitchers and a shore-handed defender. Either Travis Janikowski or Daniel Palka may break camp as the fifth outfielder, rounding out a bench that also will include Davis, Smith and Nido.
Record Prediction: 88-74
Perhaps it’s fitting that, as I pen this section, the entirety of New York’s fanbase is enduring an existential crisis, with news on deGrom having just been released. There are so many variables, so much fragility, at play here, all of which would have to go well for the Mets to become the team that many envision them being. There’s no doubt that this group is in win-now mode, and, as importantly, are hungry to repent for the horrors of last season – no team in MLB history spent more time in first place (103 days) without even achieving a winning record.
The offseason replenished a beleaguered roster, and it would be surprising if no one out of Lindor/Smith/Davis/McNeil/McCann mounted a bounce-back season. And as for the rotation? Well, Schezer and Bassitt provide somewhat of a failsafe in deGrom’s absence, which the team lacked last season during its post-All-Star Break slide. And so, as always, optimism prevails in spite of deGrom’s injury. Riding a resurgent offense and a dominant rotation, the Mets are good enough to snap a five-year postseason drought.
Player to Watch #1: Francisco Lindor
Lindor’s first season in Queens hardly went according to plan. The megastar shortstop endured two of the worst months of his career to kick off his tenure with the Mets, hitting .182 in April and .204 in June. Fresh off a $341 million dollar contract extension, Lindor heard no shortage of early season boos and, to his credit, took the blame for his struggles.
In the second half of the season, though, Lindor more closely resembled the player who has entrenched himself as one of the game’s most dynamic players. After returning from a strained oblique in late August, Lindor hit .257 and mashed 14 extra base hits – including 9 home runs – while driving in 25 runs. It was the sort of production that the Mets envisioned receiving when they shipped away four prospects to the Guardians for Lindor last January.
So much is expected of Lindor entering his second season as a Met and, so far this spring, the 28-year-old has picked up where he left off. In 18 Spring Training at-bats, Lindor has four home runs with 10 RBI, hitting a cool .444 with a 1.643 OPS. Of course, Spring Training stats hardly matter – the only thing that does is health. But perhaps there’s something to be said about Lindor’s comfort level at the dish, especially after he looked so maddeningly out of sorts for large swaths of last season.
Player to Watch #2: Francisco Alvarez
To be clear upfront: I don’t think that Alvarez will play in the majors this year. He is still just 20-years-old, and the last catcher to make his debut at such a young age was Pudge Rodriguez over 20 years ago. But Alvarez merits his own section here because of how tantalizing his potential truly is.
Alvarez, a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball and the top prospect in New York’s farm system, has impressed coaches and teammates alike this spring. His mammoth home run against the Marlins earlier in Spring Training – which smashed off his own face on the stadium scoreboard in left center – is a reminder of the raw power that he brings to the table. While there is work to be done at the plate – in terms of cutting down his strikeouts – and defensively – although his pitch framing capabilities are already above average – it’s impossible not to see the potential.
Clamors for Alvarez will surely amplify during the season, especially if McCann posts another underwhelming campaign, and Nido struggles to stay healthy. But Alvarez is unlikely to be the stopgap answer. So be patient, Mets fans. But keep tabs on Alvarez’s minor league success, and perhaps a 2023 debut will be on the horizon.
Player to Watch #3: Dom Smith
It’s easy to forget that Smith received MVP votes just two seasons ago. In the truncated 2020 season, Smith slashed .316/.377/.616 and smashed 10 home runs; he appeared to be a budding star.
But last season, for whatever reason, Smith regressed tremendously. His OPS plummeted to .667, while his slugging percentage fell nearly 300 percentage points. Smith revealed earlier in Spring Training that he played through a number of nagging ailments, mainly a shoulder injury that hampered his usual one-handed back swing.
This figures to be a make-or-break year for Smith, who is still just 26-years-old. Had the offseason not been curtailed by the lockout, perhaps Smith is heading into Opening Day on a different roster. But, the Mets chose to keep him in the fold and, with the full-time DH coming to the NL, Smith should receive a decent amount of playing time, rotating with the likes of Robinson Cano and J.D. Davis. For Smith, it’s unclear whether 2020 or 2021 was the fluke – and 2022 will go a long way toward finding the answer.
Categories: 2022 Season Preview